Katie Bull Q&A: On Finding Your Mentor and Your Voice
Katie Bull, critically acclaimed NYC-based jazz vocalist and vocal educator/mentor, answers some of my questions about her experience teaching vocal exploration and her approach to jazz mentorship. Next week Katie and her own mentor, Jay Clayton, are teaching an online jazz voice master class. Learn more about the class.
Claire from Lessonface: What is the most important thing most people don’t know about their voice?
Katie Bull: The voice is a natural phenomenon - a lot of times people really just need to be given the tools to own what they already have. We were born to vocalize! And by extension, to sing! I really do believe that; it’s what I’ve witnessed for over twenty years of vocal coaching. They might have tensions or habits that interfere with the range of the natural voice, but when given some basic organic tools, they experience a discovery of their natural instrument. They may have some epiphanies in their lives too, and therefore, in their art. And visa versa. They realize that their voice was “there” all along, because it lives in their body, and they can be more expressively open, more grounded. Ultimately, you really are designed to sing and speak, which is about communication. It seems simple, but the natural voice is about authentic conversation, something we use every day; so, tap into that.
Claire: What should people do to learn more about their voice?
Katie: Well - there are so many different paths and they are unique for each individual. Some people learn about their voice by taking a voice lesson with a mentor who is organic in the way they approach the voice. For those singers, healthy singing lessons open up range and strength. Some people already have the instrument available to them but have emotional or psychophysical blocks. Those people need to sink into breath-connected places of feeling, viscerally, with someone qualified to guide them, such as a somatic-oriented counselor, and that work can go hand-in-hand with good vocal lessons. I was lucky to have some excellent singing mentors early in my life from the jazz and classical traditions, as well as speaking voice mentors, and I combined those explorations with Jungian dream explorations, yoga, Tibetan Buddhist meditation, improvisational dance, gravity-rooted whole body centering and Feldenkrais technique, and bio-energetic work through the Core Energetics tradition. I am now also a Certified Fitzmaurice Technique (co) Associate teacher, adding new tools for my own instrument, and teaching. Teachers should be in a constant exploration, too. I think most people need to learn about their voice in a combination of ways; when you have an available instrument; you want to know thyself, and sing from a truthful and deep place. You want to understand the physical anatomy and understand it really viscerally meaning, as a sensation in your body. Training helps, but there is no cookie cutter way to know more. You need to really seek out the kindred mentor, and listen to them with your ears and heart; if they aren’t guiding you to listen to yourself something is wrong because ultimately the voice journey is about knowing your own instrument vs. becoming attached to a voice guru. You need to know whether you are feeling empowered by the person you train with, and if the work leads you to greater vocal expression. You want to train with people you feel connected to creatively, and whom you respect.
In the realm of jazz, I have two mentors I’ve had since I was a teenager and they still have my ear and my respect. They are masters. They are the vocal jazz pioneer Jay Clayton and NEA Jazz Master, Sheila Jordan. There are other mentors that I met along the way. My first and now deceased speaking voice mentor, Chuck Jones, brought me onto the path of what I call whole body voice. I remember one day I said to him, “so, really – the whole body speaks!” And by extension – the whole body sings. The elders have years that they can bring to bear - such as Jay Clayton, who I worked with the first time when I was just 14, in an improvisation workshop. And Sheila whom I actually knew when I was just a toddler actually – (she was a friend of my father’s who was a jazz piano player and dancer). And I met Chuck Jones when I was 16, and a freshman at SUNY Purchase. There are also younger artists who have dedicated themselves to their craft for at least a decade or so, and are really developing into excellent mentors, too.
Claire: How would you describe yourself in three words?
Katie: I am here.
Claire: Could you tell us a bit more about your background?
I was born into a jazz household, and that has everything to do with where I am today and why I feel this desire to explore as a mentor in partnership with my mentor Jay Clayton, for the master class. I’ve been vocal coaching for many years, approaching voice through the speaking voice and whole body voice pathway. My own singing background has bebop and experimental roots, a love of the American jazz standard, bossa nova, as well as funk edge and blues. I have always loved folk music of cultures of the world, and music that moves people to dance – I come from a dance background as I mentioned (my dad was a dancer, and so was my stepmom). I have two really cool teenagers but even before I had kids, I liked bluesy, funky and groove rooted indie rock. New sounds have gotten into my soul from many directions. I like electronic sounds - that is great energy. I dig rap too, when it’s not about violence. The way the rhythms get into the body and the poetic practice of speaking truth in the moment in hip hop are really kindred to jazz forms – everyone should listen to American jazz vocalist Napoleon Maddox, and also Swiss born jazz experimental vocalist Andreas Schaerer for really cutting edge beat boxing integrations. My background set me up to have open ears. I can’t say I have a desire to coach straight-up pop singing, by the way. There is a moment when to my ears, it’s just not jazz. In this workshop particularly I am focused on jazz forms meaning, there will be improvisation. But my ears are open. All of that influence came through growing up in a household of music. Musicians would come into my house for jam sessions all throughout my childhood – they used to improvise down in my family’s loft in Tribeca growing up. Pianist Borah Bergman, reed player and guitarist Elliott sharp and Jay Clayton are only a few of the artists who made music with my family of dancers. Also - experimental voice-theater artists like Meredith Monk had an influence; she would come by the loft too, and I went to see her productions so, I witnessed her work growing up. The loft we moved into was actually trumpeter Don Cherry’s former loft. And as I mentioned before, my vocal mentors had a tremendous impact. Sheila Jordan - I just saw her at the jazz festival in Toronto, and she called me up on stage to sit-in! She was a close friend of my father’s from a young age – (he once said he had a big crush on her when he was 17!). Everything I do is based on the notion that as a singer and artist you want to be playful - and I mean authentically playful, not preconceived “showing people” you are playful. Really taking risks. Setting up creative approaches that lead to listening, coming from the heart and making songs with your band in the moment. Learning how to cut loose.
Claire: Who should try to sing jazz?
Katie: Anyone who loves jazz and wants to sing jazz! You need to understand that to really sing jazz you need to have a passion or a sense of dedication to exploring the music. I really want to emphasize that: If you don’t know the music, if you didn’t grow up in it or listen to it a great deal, you need to be willing to listen to it - go out to live performances, or listen to recordings, and understand that the bottom line in jazz is improvisation. Not all jazz singers need to scat sing – there’s a new extraordinary young jazz singer out there – Cecile McLorin Salvant – and she doesn’t focus on scat at all, yet she’s absolutely singing jazz and deeply. But what she is doing is singing in the moment, with expressive phrasing and timing that’s interactive and playful with her band, and the audience. Anyone can definitely sing! I would never say that only someone with a certain kind of voice should try to sing.
Now that said - you do have to have an ear. What I mean by that is - if you have issues with hearing pitches your first stop needs to be ear training. Having said that, the whole bodywork can improve people’s ears - because being more focused on listening can help them hear the instruments around them. If someone is tremendously sharp or flat, the first step would be a proper assessment of their ears and I would refer them to a medical doctor - to make sure they don’t have hearing loss issues, and if not, then I would refer them to a little ear training.
Singing does require you to hear what’s happening around you.
Claire: Is it worth telling any horror stories about voices “going bad” - like hoarse, exhausted? I’ve heard a few. I don’t want to be sensationalistic, but it’s good to know so people can avoid it, perhaps?
Katie: Yes we want to avoid horror, yes. Vocal health is the bottom line for anyone who uses their voice as a performer. We’ll discuss vocal health, or vocal hygiene - hydration, proper rest, discuss allergies, discuss potential for damage - vocal blisters, laryngitis - what about when you’re ill and need to perform. Many singers “push” and scream, and they wear out their vocal chords. We need to know that we are singing to people, about something, and connect to that channel of communication. To keep the vocal channel healthy you must hydrate and a singer simply must have proper rest or they will lose their voice eventually. Great healthy singers are proactive in ways that relate to the whole body as an instrument.
So, yes, I could tell you horror stories, because singers do lose their voices. I’ve encountered circumstances where people come to me after they have completed medical rehabilitation of injured vocal chords, or during that process if the doctor approves; and, people who have had vocal surgery and they need to bridge back into singing or speaking - those circumstances, in my experience, benefit from whole body voice warm ups and applications going forward. I’ve had no one who’s lost their range on my watch, but I can’t control the choices people make when they finish training. I only hope that I offer them some basic principles and tools that they can take with them; it’s up to the singer to explore their voice and develop their own relationship to vocal health with discipline. I’ve had the experience of working with several people who have been referred to me after major vocal difficulties; they’ve had full recoveries from serious damage, meaning, they lost their voice straining, went to surgery, did medical rehab, and then came to me as a voice coach for the artist. All those processes combined, have led to full recoveries. It’s hard to imagine this unless you’ve been there, with nodes for example. Everyone thinks it only happens to the other guy, but vocal injuries can happen in a “blow out” moment of pushing and they take time to heal.
The whole purpose of whole body voice is doing a really good warm up, and understanding the vocal anatomy of the body, so that you can be healthy when you’re singing. And so that’s part of what we train in! Anyone who has those kinds of preexisting medical conditions, if they want to train, should let me know what the injuries are in advance. Some injuries demand extreme adaptations of the warm-up. For instance, if you have spinal injuries, you shouldn’t do the more vigorous of the exercises unless a doctor approves. It is whole body training.
Claire: What is the biggest vocal challenge you’ve ever encountered in a student, and how did you address it?
Katie: You’re talking about the body and the breath and the voice -- it’s who we are - so the process for people is personal and I generally don’t speak about students outside of our work together.
But some students have given me permission to talk about their process, so when I’m teaching, I may reference those specific examples. But those are only with people that give me direct permission. I can give you an example of a vocalist who was having a lot of difficulty with chronic loss of the voice. We discovered that, her warm-up was very general - she would go straight to notes before she did any sort of whole body grounding for example. So there was kind of a missing link in the warm-up. She would go straight to singing that was pushed, and feel fatigued. It was because she didn’t develop a connection between the upper and the lower body; she was only singing from her neck, shoulders and head. On top of that, she was chronically getting a lot of phlegm in performances. We worked on developing something called kinesthetic awareness, which means feeling the body, actually feeling sensations of the body itself, and developing ways of applying that awareness for understanding whole body singing – so she was starting to really let go of the unnecessary use of her head and neck. There had to be dietary changes too, and they had to be intentional. She ate way too much dairy and she wasn’t aware she had a dairy allergy. Singers need to find what’s best for their own body.
The chronic condition was resolved and eliminated, and I like that result! Change takes time, and there’s no guarantee a problem is going to change, but change happened with her, and she was able to go and perform without losing her voice, and it was very rewarding for both of us.
I have former students call me or Facebook chat with me, telling me their symptoms -- and quite often they’re able to what I call “self coach” themselves. They know their instruments, and they’re able to get through their challenges on their own - and that’s the best sign that I have really transmitted some empowerment and given them tools. That’s the goal. That they know their own instrument. I’ve worked with some musical theater artists too, and, you need a lot of stamina to sing Leonard Bernstein on the road, as they say.
Claire: What is your teaching approach?
Katie: I have vocal coached people on Broadway, off and off-off Broadway, and for artists who sing in jazz venues. Some have been jazz singers, some have been singer/songwriters, and some have been actors in theater, television, and film. I have a wide range of genres I’ve been coaching in and I find that working with someone on their speaking voice as a primary approach helps them with their singing voice. Also, I like to find out what other body modalities the singer is “in” and draw from those existing modes - like athletics, dance, martial arts and approaches to alignment, for example.
I was working with someone who had a lot of tension, and the more we worked on singing and vocalizing directly, the more the habits were coming into the foreground, but the person was also a skier, and by referencing their preexisting mode of visceral knowledge as a skier, their voice started to change - and that helped to release their spine and their vocal channel. That was a challenging moment, solved by going outside of the box to work physically with the sensations of where the weight is distributed, how the breath is moving. Many somatic traditions -- and we really have to credit those like Feldenkrais, Alexander technique, Contact Improvisation, Core Energetics, Mind Body Centering – are available for actors to explore in great depth. I reference them in my own life, and they influence the way I approach teaching Whole Body Voice. I frequently refer people to those body-working experts.
As I mentioned, my original mentor was Chuck Jones who trained in the Linklater technique, and went on to evolve voice work in his own way. And I am a certified Fitzmaurice Technique © Associate Teacher.
It’s really important when people are studying, that they know the lineage of their mentor, and that they can take the skills that they learn and evolve them uniquely, in their own lifetime. I can give something really fundamental, and useful which is a set of self-coaching skills. Then, singers can go on a lifelong journey of self-discovery -- in their own instrument. There are so many ways the voice can become this really dimensional field of exploration. It’s not just about your diaphragm for example- there is a whole musculo-skeletal system that is inter-connected. Voice is about being really fully alive in your full body, being present physically and emotionally. And, there is a reason why so many jazz musicians are really focused on meditation practices - jazz is about the here and now.
Claire: What are the best parts of your voice classes, in your opinion?
Katie: I’ve never thought about it that way, but I love that we get to know each other, and that music comes out of that process. And that’s what happens. We get to do physical explorations that feel good, and when they’re challenging, there’s a subtle but real excitement that can be generated around discovery. I really like when that’s what’s happening in the class. I really like the moments when people find truthful impulses within their vocalizing. It feels like a birth to me - I have 2 children - and it’s like a true birth when someone’s real voice comes shining through. It’s like tending to a garden, the beginning part of the class is when seeds are planted, and we get to nurture our voices and grow. It’s a metaphor, but its also totally physically real, this growth process. You can feel the change in your body and voice when you do the exercises. I also like that there’s usually laughter in my classes. We’re communicating in a playful way. Sometimes there are tears, when people connect to feelings they’ve held onto, with held breath. The voice is beautifully mysterious - sound vibration is an awesome, beautiful phenomenon - sometimes joyous, sometimes scary. So it’s good to have a playful heart when you’re in that landscape.